Navy Secretary Ray Mabus has been a fierce advocate for renewable energy in general and Navy biofuel in particular, and he’s just scribed a new article over at Foreign Policy that lays out all the reasons why domestic oil production will do little or nothing to cushion the US market from global price and supply shocks. More to the point, he also highlights why petroleum dependency will cripple US forces in the event of a major conflict, in exactly the same way that Allied forces neutered the powerful war machines of Germany and Japan, simply by cutting off their limited options for fuel supply.
Mabus covers a lot of ground in the article, including the impact of rising oil prices on Navy operations, the relationship between petroleum dependency and Marine deaths in Afghanistan, the “politically distorting” impact of petroleum resources on developing nations and the international geopolitics of fossil fuel supply, the Navy’s burdensome role in aiding offshore drillers with security and emergency response issues, and the vulnerability of global oil market “choke points” to rogue attacks (the Panama Canal being one familiar example).
The whole piece, titled “Green Water,” is well worth a read, but for those of you with limited time at your disposal we’ll go ahead and summarize some key points Mabus makes about the Navy’s biofuel initiatives and the way forward.
Innovation And National Defense
One of the most important points that Mabus makes is that, historically, the US Navy has met resource competition and the shifting terrain of military conflict with technological innovation, transitioning from wooden sailing ships to coal power, then on to oil and nuclear energy.
Now a new wave of innovation is imperative, as the national defense focus turns toward the Western Pacific and Arabian Gulf regions, putting increased demands on US seapower. Mabus neatly sums up the implications for fuel diversity:
“…the requirement for a global presence using innovative, low-cost, light-footprint engagements, while continuing to protect the global commons, means decreasing our reliance on fossil fuels must be at the top of our agenda.”
Nuclear power already accounts for 17 percent of the Navy’s power at sea, which Mabus views as a head start on the ultimate goal of reducing onshore and maritime use of fossil fuels by 50 percent, by 2020. For the Navy’s onshore installations, that means producing a big chunk of that energy on site (that initiative is well under way in terms of solar power, some examples being Pearl Harbor in Hawaii and China Lake in California).
Navy Biofuel And Federal Subsidies
Mabus also provides a reminder that the federal government has historically supported the commercial development of key industries for national defense, one example being the purchase of expensive domestic steel for Navy ships at the turn of the 19th century. That support has been codified for decades under the Defense Production Act.
As for supporting new fuel technology, Mabus points out that in 1944 Congress committed millions of dollars ($392 million in today’s currency) for demonstration plants that cranked out expensive synthetic fuels, and continued to invest hundreds of millions more in synthetic fuel initiatives over the next decade.
Within that framework, the Obama Administration has committed $510 million to a biofuel production initiative teaming the Navy with the Departments of Energy and Agriculture along with private sector partners. The initiative involves four companies that will build biorefineries with a combined capacity of more than 150 million gallons annually, which is almost 25 percent of the Navy’s fleet consumption right there.
For the record, the biofuel from these refineries is expected to be drop-in quality, meaning it will get the same or better performance as petroleum with no modification needed for engines or infrastructure related to transportation and fueling.
As for cost, the expectation is that these refineries will produce fuel at an average price “well below $4.00 per gallon,” according to Mabus, which puts it on track to compete with fossil fuels by 2016.
Support Our Troops!
Speaking of cost, we’ve taken a few jabs at certain members of Congress who have tried to monkeywrench the Navy’s biofuel initiatives under the excuse that they are too expensive, but we can’t match the way Mabus puts it, so rather than linking back to our articles on the subject we’ll leave you with a parting shot from him:
“If concerns over cost and fear of change had carried the day, we would still be using sails. We never would have built aircraft carriers nor become the only nation that launches and lands aircraft off them day or night. We never would have pioneered nuclear power, nor would we build nuclear carriers and submarines today, because they remain far more expensive than conventional models. We do these things because they give us a technological advantage. They make the Navy and Marine Corps better warfighters. As blacksmiths and battleship admirals prove, change is inevitable and irresistible.”
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